At this point, the end is nearing for Dirk Nowitzki. He is uncertain when he’ll stop playing, but it’s reached the point at which an evening with Dirk shouldn’t be taken for granted.
The art of scoring without anything resembling a dunk should be appreciated, because Nowitzki has revolutionized the game with his ability to score from the post. Those 7-footers who can shoot from the perimeter are often compared with Nowitzki, including Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk, who Sunday night played his first game against his idol.
Nowitzki seemingly took it easy on the Celtics at TD Garden, scoring an effortless 20 points in 32 minutes, but not without wowing the crowd with a rainbow 3-pointer and his customary one-legged, fadeaway jumper that is as indefensible as Kareem’s skyhook.
The Mavericks dominated the second half and won, 102-91, with Nowitzki showing why his game should be cherished and copied, especially for someone such as Olynyk, who has some of the same physical attributes.
If you recall, the power forward position was dramatically different in the 1990s. They were plodding, beefy, wide-bodied space eaters who pounded the ball in the paint, backing down their defender until they became part of the backboard stanchion.
There was little grace to the position, only brute strength and grit. When Nowitzki came along in 1998, the term “stretch 4” was not yet in use. Nowitzki was considered a soft kid from Europe with the inability to mix it up with other 7-footers. His game was frowned upon until his shooting ability brought the big man 19 feet from the basket, stretched the floor, and spiked NBA offenses.
Suddenly players of Nowitzki’s skill and size were as popular as iPods in the mid-2000s. Teams searched for that long, perimeter-oriented big man who could score on slower centers at will. Teams have searched for Nowitzki’s prototype for a decade but none have been able to eclipse Nowitzki.
“I think the game obviously evolved a lot from when I first came in,” said Nowitzki, who was selected ninth overall in ’98, one pick ahead of one Paul Pierce. “All 4s were back-to-the-basket 4s, Charles [Barkley] obviously being the guy who backs in for 10 seconds, and then over the years with more stretch 4s, then we changed the rules and you can play zone now, [and] the game evolved away from all the one-on-one. But I think now it’s a more team game. All that iso ball went away, and as a 4, you have to know how to shoot. It’s been a fun evolution of the game.”
Nowitzki often has been compared with Larry Bird, but Bird was a small forward with shooting guard skills. Nowitzki is the size of a center with small forward skills, making for a nightly matchup nightmare, even at age 35.
The Mavericks could have taken the same route as the Celtics and decided to move Nowitzki and rebuild, but owner Mark Cuban surrounded Nowitzki with savvy veterans for potentially one more title run. The fact that Nowitzki is likely to retire a Maverick is good for the NBA and a testament to how critical he is to the identity of Dallas basketball.
Cuban made the mistake of allowing a 29-year-old Steve Nash to return to the Phoenix Suns as a free agent because he believed Nash wouldn’t physically last in the NBA for an extended time. Injuries have derailed Nash in the past year, but he turned 40 this week, years after the move.
“Literally, we let him go because we thought he’d be too injured,” Cuban said. “That was a real smart look on our side. I tell him he’s the same age now as when I bought the team.”
“He’s a pup,” Cuban said of Nowitzki. “I always tell him, ‘Today’s the youngest you’re ever going to be, play like it.’ That’s the thing about Dirk, it’s not like you’re ever going to talk about him slowing down because he can’t slow down. He can’t get any slower. That’s never going to be an issue.”
Nowitzki said he’ll likely sign a two-year extension with the Mavericks this summer and then take his career “year by year.”
When asked how long Nowitzki can play given his finesse style, Cuban said, “With guys who are really diligent and anal about their diet and how they take care of themselves, barring an injury, they can play a lot longer. You see Ray Allen as an example and Kevin Garnett. With Kevin, the more minutes they gave him, the better he’s played, so I think it’s different. Kids coming into the league now, it won’t be unusual to play into their 40s if they’re not hurt.”
Nowitzki is not planning to go anywhere any time soon. He enjoys the challenge of scoring on younger players on his left leg. He is a testament that this sport is based on skill and ingenuity. The challenge for each player is developing and perfecting moves that give you staying power, and Nowitzki certainly has displayed that.
“I always said I want to play as long as it’s fun,” he said. “If I have to get up in the morning and go to work, then I’d rather retire. Time flies and  is not too far off. It shows you gotta enjoy this ride, you gotta enjoy every moment of it, because sooner or later it’s going to be over and you’re going to be forgotten.”